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US moves to make nation’s largest coal region unavailable to new mining

US officials on May 16 released a proposal to block future coal leases on public lands in the Powder River Basin, the nation’s largest coal mining region.

The US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) issued a final supplemental environmental impact statement and proposed land use plan for its Buffalo Field Office in Wyoming and its Miles City Field Office in Montana, proposing to make BLM-managed coal resources in the planning offices’ regions unavailable for future leases. The BLM noted that existing leases would allow coal to be mined on federal lands for the next several years. The area includes some of the largest mines operated by some of the United States’ most prominent coal mining companies.

The BLM announcement opened a 30-day public protest period ending June 17. The protest period is the final opportunity for review of the proposed land use planning decisions before the plan is adopted, according to a Federal Register notice scheduled for publication May 17.

“As someone who lives near some of the largest coal mines in the nation, I’m thankful for the leadership from the BLM in finally addressing the long-standing negative impacts that federal coal leasing has had on the Powder River Basin,” Lynne Huskinson, a retired coal miner and a member of the boards of the Powder River Basin Resource Council and Western Organization of Resource Councils advocacy groups, said in a statement. “For decades, mining has affected public health, our local land, air, and water, and the global climate. We look forward to BLM working with state and local partners to ensure a just economic transition for the Powder River Basin as we move toward a clean energy future.”

The 12 active surface coal mines within the Buffalo Field Office’s purview mined approximately 220 million short tons of federal coal in 2022, the BLM said. That compares to about 594 MMst total produced in the US in that year, according to the US Energy Information Administration. However, that figure is down sharply. As recently as 2008, when US coal production was at its peak, the 12 coal producers mined roughly 400 MMst, the BLM said, compared to the 1.17 billion short tons of coal mined in the US that year. Power plants from across the country continue to rely on Powder River Basin coal producers for their supply.

Existing leases within the Buffalo office would allow for federal coal production through 2041.

“The remaining leased coal volume provides time to advance commercial-scale carbon capture and non-thermal coal use technologies during the planning period,” the BLM wrote in a Federal Register notice.

The Miles City Office wrote that coal production on federal land is anticipated to continue through 2035 at Navajo Transitional Energy Co. LLC’s Spring Creek mine and 2060 at Westmoreland Coal Co.’s Rosebud mine under existing leases. In 2022, the two mines produced a total of 18.5 MMst of coal, according to the BLM.

Other prominent mining companies with operations in the affected areas include Peabody Energy Corp. and Arch Resources Inc., neither of which immediately responded to a request for comment.

David Merrill, senior field organizer at Montana Sierra Club, said in a statement that there is overwhelming support for renewable energy as an alternative to fossil fuels and applauded the proposal.

“This will signal a major turning point where the public’s best interest — and what’s best for our collective future — is at the heart of land-use decisions instead of a status quo where public lands are sold off to the highest bidder,” Merrill said.
Republicans, miners rage

“At a time of deteriorating grid reliability, soaring electricity demand and ongoing concern about global energy shocks, proposing a plan of no new coal leasing in the Powder River Basin is outrageous,” said Rich Nolan, president and CEO of the National Mining Association trade group. “This damages American energy security and affordability and is a severe economic blow to mining states and communities.”

The announcement drew sharp criticism from Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY), a ranking member on the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

“President Biden continues to wage war on Wyoming’s coal communities and families,” Barrasso said in a statement. “This short-sighted plan will kill future coal leases in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin — the most energy-rich area in the country. This will kill jobs and could cost Wyoming hundreds of millions of dollars used to pay for public schools, roads, and other essential services in our communities.”

Several Republican Montana officials derided the Biden administration’s decision in a joint statement immediately following the announcement, including US Senator Steve Daines, Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte, Rep. Ryan Zinke and Rep. Matt Rosendale.

“Since Day One, the Joe Biden administration has been on an anti-energy war path in an attempt to appease far-Left environmental groups,” Daines said in the statement. “Shutting down future coal production in eastern Montana will jeopardize our energy independence, raise costs for families and kill good-paying jobs.”

The new resource plans were developed in response to a 2022 order from the US District Court for the District of Montana.

Earlier this year, the US Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit blocked a wider Obama-era moratorium on US coal leasing. Many producers have expressed little interest in expanding their activities in the region as they focus more on metallurgical coal assets or mines with better access to and appeal to export markets. However, when demand allows, they have taken advantage of opportunities to increase output. For instance, Peabody Energy boasted a near-term high in Powder River Basin coal sales in the fourth quarter of 2023.
Source: Platts

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